Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Is your farm producing generic volume or premium value ?


Starting as my Dad’s part-time office boy, ad writer and assistant bookkeeper, I am closing in on fifty years working in and observing the evolution of dairy cow breeding.   In this period, I have seen the exodus of my peers from farming to city jobs, or the changeover of dairy farms to crop farming and steer feeding.    All of us have seen the rise of environmentalism, now facing the first generation of the consumer public that does not see us as “the stewards of the land” but often as despoilers of the environment.    Many of you are jumping through extra “hoops” as more milk product handlers want to impact on the way in which we produce the milk they sell.   (My largest “aAa” customer in Ohio agreed to go “GMO free” in order to earn a premium on milk from Dannon yogurt.  With 2800 cows this adds up to thousands in extra income without added cost!)    

Are there opportunities for the majority of us?     There will be.    If you look at the sales made by Michigan’s largest on-farm bottlers (Country Dairy/ New Era, Moo-ville Creamery/ Nashville, Calder Dairy/ Carleton) all involve rBST-free, GMO free, and/or A2A2 Beta Casein labelling.    There are a couple successful local Amish-built dairies that are selling “creamline” premium milk and finding a ready market.

In Europe, the animal rights’ oversight on dairy farms has made note of how the “aAa” system for mating the cow physique produces “happier” (easier moving, more trouble free) cows.   In contrast, most dairymen suffering outsider inspection of cow lots find themselves written up for “lameness” – the majority of which is based on poor leg structure caused genetically and thus cannot be solved by any management intervention short of a higher culling rate.

Generic cows result from genetic indexes designed to produce commodity milk

Did anyone ever suggest this to you?    “Index” was designed from the beginning to satisfy the data-driven scientist focused on chemistry, rather than living biology.    Scientists do not trust “observational” knowledge, will follow a reductionist path to focus on data points that shorten the time of evaluation.    Genomics—a look at new-born DNA under a microscope—is the final step in this evolution away  from animal husbandry, which was always driven by interpretation of observed behavior and accumulated experience over animal lifetimes and intergenerational (rather than contemporary) comparison.

This focus on data points (the irony of trying to predict gene transmission when comparing a set of unrelated animals—ignoring the “mating effects” resulting from choice of sire and dam) has allowed undesirable behavior to propogate, and among this is the various mutations that effect milk composition in negative ways…    “blending” good and bad milk on the same milk route.  

Everyone suffers under milk market “pooling” when bad genes are allowed to proliferate

An example of this is when a major Michigan milk cooperative lost a lucrative volume market supplying milk to a cheese plant—and having three loads in a row fail to “set” curds in the set processing time.    What caused this?    OK, possibly too much fermented feed leading to too acid a milk produced;  but also, the proliferation of the “E”  Kappa Casein gene, a recently identified milk protein mutation that refuses to set curds.     This has multiplied in Holsteins as a result of widespread usage of a high Genomic value sire line dominating the “sire of sons” lists.     “Accelerating the generations” has meant that three generations of that sire line could be used in your herds before the first drop of milk was produced by the oldest generation of offspring having calved from that line.     By then, how many “outcross” (clean) cows do you have left?   

Traits not driven by data points have no impact on Genomic sire rankings.    Bulls with the “E” Kappa Casein gene should receive “Cheese Merit” indexes of zero – but their “cheese” indexes are still within the same range as the basic fluid milk “Net Merit” ranking.   Likewise, polled has no impact on any index, even though it has a clear multi-generation positive impact on heifer raising costs.    Data for Daughter Pregnancy Rates is not affected negatively when OvSynch has to be used to get cows pregnant (an increasing percentage of cows generated from IVF-ET sires will not cycle naturally) because DHIA does not record that data.    The relentless focus on more milk regardless of cost has you raising replacements that will require ever more intervention from external inputs raising costs.   In this, the $50 million that the dairy industry has invested in Genomic tests so far, to decide if a heifer deserves to be raised into a future cow, has not raised the net income of any dairyman who sells milk (instead of breeding stock) for his living.               

The 40% of dairymen who still use “matrix” trait selection are best positioned for the future

Genomics to date is calibrated simply on the male DNA side of the genotype.   The observable differences in female RNA (which pass from cow to her heifers) some of which affect milkiness are not considered.    Depending on Genomics for your total genetic decisions is to breed for bulls—and in fifty years I have yet to see any bull give a drop of milk!!

This might explain why we are happy to assist those dairymen who are increasingly selecting in favor of traits outside the data points—polled, A2A2 Beta Casein, AB or BB Kappa Casein, plus percents of butterfat and/or protein, depth of maternal line performance, and managing cow conformation with the “aAa” breeding guide (rather than following advice that has you mating your matured, most successfully adapted, more fertile, high productivity cows to “beef” bulls just because their DNA came from older thus “obsolete” bulls…)

So much of what the genetics industry is promoting reminds me of the children’s fairy tale, do you remember “The Emperor’s New Clothes” from the Brothers Grimm?   Just ‘cause everyone says this invisible cloth is lovely and therefore valuable, the fat old emperor is all I can see … it is still important we breed real cows with the capability of a long life of low-cost productivity.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Turmoil in the alfalfa seed industry reflects the changing Dairy farm dynamic

  CONCEPTIONS   Dairy Route newsletter                   Jan-Feb 2023 

Two of the three largest corporate entities in the breeding and production of alfalfa seed are currently for sale, with no “takers” in sight.     Corteva, the corporate spinoff that holds all the prior agricultural divisions of Dow Chemical, has drastically reduced staff in the alfalfa division.    A major competitor has similarly downsized its investment in alfalfa breeding, while it has been a couple years since Monsanto (during its sale to Bayer AG) spun off its “round up ready” alfalfa project to a division of Land Of Lakes.

What does this all mean?    Simply that, since the run-up in corn and soybean commodity prices the industry saw thousands of acres of alfalfa tilled up to plant row crops.    Those big chemical companies who have been buying up seed production in recent years are focusing down on the crops that require the most chemicals under the current monocultural farming models.

This does not mean that alfalfa seed will not be available, because it is.   At Byron Seeds we are expanding the reach of the “Synergy” concept alfalfa blends, which draw seed from several of the independent seed breeding companies.     If you have not looked at “Synergy” there is this opportunity to jump-start your alfalfa production in the face of the decline of seed propogation programs which will just keep selling the older varieties already in the marketplace.

BUT at the same time, crop reports are showing that the future for hay and haylage is moving in favor of mixed alfalfa/grass (the greatest tonnage and stand life) and grass/clover (the greatest nutritional density) if not the “three way” of grass, alfalfa and clover.     If you look up “synergy” in a dictionary, it will tell you “the result when the new ‘whole’ is greater than its parts.”

Mich Livestock Service, Inc   For the Best in Bulls”    “High Digestible Forages”
P O Box 661   (110 N Main St)   Ovid,  MI  48866     phone (989) 834- 2661     fax (989) 834- 2914     email to:

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

WEIRD TRENDS IN HOLSTEIN CATTLE that are causing trouble

  CONCEPTIONS  Dairy Route Newsletter               May-June 2022

Many of you have never asked why I keep promoting the “aAa” Breeding Guide.   I also know that the typical AI stud salesman calls what we do “voodoo” as if it had no basis in the biology of gene transmission and genotype repairing.    In fact, aAa has always had the most provable explanation of why linear-based matings can go wrong and produce early-age culls from what were supposed to be the “best” sires (and for which you probably paid a premium price).

Here are some examples:


Many of the “elite” sire lines based on both the “Net Merit $” index and Holstein “TPI” index have been “erasing” the rear teat on your replacements, frequently producing udders lacking enough rear teat to seal a teat cup for milking   

Biological cause:  lack of aAa quality #1 “Dairy”  
Selection cause:  as Genomics accelerates sire generations in favor of “health” it has reduced the hormone production in heifers that would complete developing a full capacity udder.    


AI studs have dreamed up “robot ready” designations to indicate the handful of sires that usually still have space between two rear teats.     The problem begins when the udder lacks any rear udder width.    Teats just ride on the outer skin of the udder; they will only be spaced when a rear udder has adequate “room”.     

Biological cause:   lack of aAa quality #5 “Smooth”
Selection cause:  as Genomic selection has tied faster adolescent growth rates and earlier-age maturity of production together, animals do not develop width or spring of rib that assists the rumen in full utilization; they just grow excessively tall and the stretched muscling flattens against the skeleton.    Narrowness results.

Often seen on the heifer who is narrow in her front end.    When you look at the way she stands at rest, her front feet “toe out” to the extent her lower leg turns.   You will see most of her weight is carried on the inner toes, allowing uneven hoof wear.   Outer toes grow out requiring frequent trimming.    She goes lame.

Biological cause:   lack of aAa quality #5 “Smooth”
Selection cause:   linear type for decades has confused “angularity” with “dairy”.    This has produced narrower front ends over time, until the frame can no longer anchor legs squarely at four corners of a physically balanced body core.


The hind leg position on such cows does not support the full rear end weight, due to a thurl position that thrusts the hind leg out partially behind the rump.   Loins flatten out, spines bend, and locomotion declines as spinal nerves get pinched.

Biological cause:   lack of aAa quality #6 “Style”
Selection cause:   linear type for decades has wavered between preference for a “set” hock and a “straight” hock, often ending up with extremes of each.    This is an added consequence of “angularity” selection, which reduces muscle mass the cow needs to hold the thurl central to the rump and fully control the foot.


If hind legs are too close to the udder, the maturing of the mammary gland will force it outside the housing provided by the pelvis.

Biological cause:    lack of aAa quality #3 “Open”  AND  lack of quality #1 “Dairy”
Selection cause:   linear type focuses more upon the rib cage, less on the pelvic dimensions, starting at the hip (hooks downward) and proceeding through thurl and pins.    Fancy snug young udders end up either deep or tilted forward, each of which reduces milkability of the udder with each added calving.


I COULD GO ON …  my point is, sound matings would PREVENT making such cows.




Monday, May 13, 2024

How much milk does the “genotype” produce, compared to your cows’ “phenotype” ??


The “genotype” is the microscopic DNA and RNA within the cells of your cows, which holds the pattern for the “potential” life the cow could experience.  

The “phenotype” is the physical cow standing in front of you, the result of how her “genotype” was filtered through her environment growing up.    It reflects how that genotype “adapted” to the environment.     It is the “real” cow rather than the theoretical, “potential” cow.

To produce the best “phenotype” you cannot depend on Genomics alone, which at this point only considers 15% of the total genes passed through conception.   Knowing that, why pay so much more for Genomic information that can easily be determined by keeping records of pedigree ancestry?   

MIch Livestock Service, Inc  “For the Best in Bulls”, mating guides, and the seeds to feed them  

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Just pondering where we are going


Embryo transfer was first attempted surgically in the 1970s—fifty years ago, with  “super-ovulation” [hormone injections to stimulate multiple egg release] quickly developing to multiply embryo production.   Then along came ET “flushing” (non-surgical) techniques in the 1980s, harvesting embryos a week after insemination for implantation into host/incubator “recipients”, followed closely by methods for freezing embryos for later implantation.    With the advent of “Genome” testing (DNA Mapping) in 2010, demand for “In Vitro Fertilization”  [conceptions made outside the cow’s body from eggs aspirated off ovaries]  arose.    A majority of Holstein, Jersey and Brown Swiss AI sires are produced by these methods.

Genetic values: now imputed instead of evaluated

From the advent of frozen semen in the 1960s, which enabled wide-scale progeny testing, until the early 2000s (again, fifty years) the “gold standard” genetic value was the 99% Reliability progeny evaluation.   Milking daughters, production tested and type classified across a number of herds, determined AI bulls’ “genetic merit.   The analysis of pedigree—ancestral performance—was of an equal value to those seeking a more complete view of breeding potential.    Finally, the individuality or phenotype of the bull himself and his close dams and sisters added up insights for compensatory mating and potential longevity of performance.

After the advent of Genomic indexed ranking the AI industry is no longer willing to wait for the final verdict of progeny evaluation.     Less phenotypic information is provided, in fact few bulls today live to maturity for evaluation, replaced by the relentless stream of newly-hatched IVF embryos.     Increasingly, the dams of the bulls AI offers never have a calf of their own, never enter the milking string, never have to compete in the real world and be evaluated on their own production.

Is there a consequence to all this?

I cannot help but wonder if we go too far with technology?   None of us as dairies can afford to abandon natural reproduction.    Nor can we afford to turn over cow herds at a 50% culling rate demanded by the current theory of “genetic progress”.    The functioning matured cow [3rd, 4th and later lactation] still produces the most.
How much of longevity requires adherence to natural fertility as nature designs?

Comparing  costs   (utilizing all the technology available)

The sales pitch is as follows:   (1) Genomic test all heifer calves for their ranking on USDA’s “Net Merit” or Holstein USA’s “Total Performance Index” [or some hybrid that adds in patented “Wellness traits” or “Immunity Plus” or “Eco Feed”].      $50

(2) sell as deacons all heifer calves below some arbitrary level of Genomic index. 
Breed the heifers retained to gender-selected semen from the newest of Genome ranked young sires, to accelerate generations to gain genetic value faster.       $60

(3) As these heifers freshen and enter the milking herd, start culling “older” cows whose Genomic index ranking value is below the incoming heifers.    Continue to breed the new milking heifers to gender-selected semen as long as their Genomic values exceed those of the second and later cows still milking.                            $70

(4)  Breed all second and later lactation cows to “Beef” breed sires, reverse gender selected if possible, to insure mostly male deacons to be sold  (deacons that look like “beef” crosses bring premium prices at sale barns).                                         $70

Depending on your success from sexed semen and raising calves, your milking herd age is going to decrease rapidly.     You are trading a “{mature}” production herd for a “{young}” production herd.     You are raising your future herd from a “heifer” momma herd instead of a proven “cow” momma herd.                   $ 1800

Estimated added cost of buying the technology theory (per cow milked):     $ 2050

The math is simple, really.    Genomic tests are an upfront cost of collecting DNA and sending it to your lab of choice.      Using gender-selected semen generally triples semen cost over regular conventional semen and related conception rates.    While heifers conceive to sexed semen at a rate within 10% of conventional semen, cows in milk conceive at a rate 25% less than regular.  
Finally, culling cows at their peak maturity (when Zoetis’ research says cows produce 30% more than they did as heifers) rather than keeping them their full productive life costs you the value of that cow, who probably cost $1800 to raise from calf to first calving.

Why have 45% of all dairymen swallowed this theory?     Just as I used to hear “you can’t get milk out of a registration paper” I will now ask you “can you get milk out of a marginally higher index?”  (enough to cover all the added costs of trusting to acceleration theories)    

Would it not be wisest to harvest as many replacement heifers as we can from the OLDEST COMPETITIVE COWS IN THE HERD?    Cows who are proven to have adapted successfully to your environment, have the fertility to breed back and have live calves, and MILK A LOT??

Monday, May 6, 2024

Should we use nitrogen fertilizer at “maximum” or “optimal” yield?

  CONCEPTIONS   Dairy Route newsletter           March-April 2022 

Nitrogen prices for 2022 crop season are, as we all know, skyrocketed.    I just read an article that suggests at these prices we should fertilize at the “optimal” level (an amount that will offer a meaningful yield boost) rather than seeking a “maximum” yield (an amount that may have diminishing return on costs).    

As cattle people we all have manure to utilize, and when carefully captured its natural nitrogen content (alongside organic matter for soil building) will aid us in row crop production.    Adapting to cover crops is an additional way to generate nitrogen naturally, reducing your out-of-pocket expense for synthetic fertilizer.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Some thoughts on feeding beef cows and the effect of supplements

  CONCEPTIONS  Beef Cow-calf newsletter         March-April 2022 

As I get older I pay more attention to people like Allen Williams, who is telling us fertility is a better measure of beef cow genetics (and a better selection strategy for profit) than rates of gain.     Feeding determines most of our weight gains.

If you are a “corn and beans” row-crop farmer with a few cows on the side, and dry lot house your cattle while crops are growing, it is certainly easier to lift that scoop of grain than that bale of hay, every day.    But it is also noticeable that the larger the cattle operation, the more emphasis is put on grazing cows and using pastures, extending the grazing season as long as you can, as the most expensive thing we do in cattle feeding is pour diesel fuel into machinery to feed them in a barn or dry lots, and haul away their manure.    Why is this true?     Because the typical beef cow is only going to generate a 550 pound calf at weaning on her own  (and the cheapest way she does that is to nurse that calf while on a good pasture, teaching it to also eat grass and thereby develop a more efficient rumen).    

All the big farming publications push heavier weaning weights.     Breeds publish the weaning averages of breeders’ calves at standardized (205 day) ages, hoping to prove their breed is better than the others.     In many farms “creep feeders” offer supplemental feeds  (grain rations, heavy on corn and oilseed byproducts)  so calves get extra energy beyond momma’s milk.     But does the market price structure pay you a profit on that increment of expense?    And are those “fat” heifers that result harder breeding and calving than pasture-raised females?

In other words, a decent beef cow even of smaller frame size will grow a calf its first 550 pounds of weight on milk alone, and the best of them will make their milk on grass alone.     All the supplements you feed, from hay to silage to grain mixes to probiotic stimulants, put on the other 200 to 250 pounds…  and as they reach puberty, the smaller frame breeds start to store excess intramuscular fat from the extra concentrated energy that corn and other supplements provide.

It is a huge waste of resources across our industry, to be faced with trimming all the extra (inedible) fat off carcasses after slaughter.    “Bark” fat is more prone to turn rancid and adds nothing to meat flavor or texture when cooked.   The only fat desirable to the consumer is the “marbled” fat that provides flavor.   


Are you making “records” or making “profits” ??

Paying attention at calving time improves conception at rebreeding time.

Raising replacements on grass builds more rumen capacity and digestive efficiency that helps the cow be profitable for a full lifetime

Growing market animals primarily on forage reduces feed costs per pound of gain and sets you up for profitability even in times of fluctuating market prices.

Selecting “terminal cross” sires on fleshing (muscularity instead of fat cover) and “maternal trait” sires on fertility and cow-line longevity is better use of genetics to improve a cow herd for the long-term than EPDs that can be “enhanced” by creep feeding calves and supplementing cows with high energy grains and oilseeds.

Mich Livestock Service, Inc  “For the Best in Bulls” and profit-making forages